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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Les nuits d'été & La mort de Cléopâtre

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: April 2012
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: April 2013
Total duration: 65 minutes 26 seconds

Cover artwork: Dragonfly Dance III by Roz Bell

A pupil of Sir Simon Rattle and the great Berliozian Sir Colin Davis, Robin's reputation as one of this generations best conductors was assured when he was announced as the next music director of Glyndebourne, taking over from Vladimir Jurowski in 2014. Named one of the top ten young ‘conductors on the verge of greatness' by Gramophone magazine, Robin delivers fresh insights and vivid colours into this luminous work. The recording features Kathleen Ferrier prize-winning mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, New York and won acclaim as Cleopatra, a role she reprises here: ‘… the core of this stunning concert was a shattering, heart-rending performance by Cargill in awesome voice' (The Herald).

The works of Berlioz have featured prominently in Ticciati's programmes with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since he became their principal conductor in 2009. Ticciati's recording debut, the Symphonie fantastique', received rave reviews: it was named Critics' Choice 'Sound of 2012' (The Independent), 'Classical CD of the Week' (The Sunday Times), 'Disc of the Week' (BBC Radio 3 'CD Review') and No 3 in The Sunday Times' Best Classical Albums of 2012 list.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'This is a performance of Les nuits d'été that is all of a piece, entirely at one with Berlioz and Gautier, and distinguished by a singer, conductor and orchestra who are palpably of like interpretative mind … a disc that offers three contrasting facets of Berlioz's output in performances of exhilarating stature' (Gramophone)

'Simply divine' (The Independent)» More

'This is Berlioz up close and personal, and wonderful to behold. Berlioz performed with love, too … piercing clarity of colour and texture; heightened drama; increased tenderness and intimacy' (The Times)» More

'Ticciati's grasp of the music's romantic bloom is one of this disc's attractions … not since Régine Crespin 50 years ago has this music been so attractively interpreted on disc' (Financial Times)» More

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Hector Berlioz (1803–69) is still best known for his overtures and symphonic works: Symphonie fantastique, Harold en Italie, and symphonic excerpts from Roméo et Juliette, the ‘dramatic symphony’ that also requires solo and choral voices for complete performance. But his total output is predominantly vocal; it includes sacred music, songs, secular cantatas, the dramatic cantata La Damnation de Faust (which is sometimes staged), and three complete operas.

As a boy growing up in provincial France, Berlioz could encounter very few kinds of music. Predominant among them was the commonest song form, the ‘romance’, usually clear-cut in melodic design and in a repetitive (strophic) form. Lacking a piano, Berlioz arranged the accompaniments of several romances for his own instrument, the guitar. His earliest surviving compositions are songs, and their simple piano accompaniments could often be effectively transcribed for guitar; the piano accompaniments were needed to attract the attention of publishers. When Berlioz moved to Paris to study medicine (1821), he published several songs, but his musical ambitions quickly developed in the direction of large-scale works, as he was inspired by the operas of Gluck, Weber, and others, and the symphonies of Beethoven. But lyrical forms remained a vital ingredient of his major works; the Symphonie fantastique opens by quoting an early song, and he set poems translated from Goethe (Huit Scènes de Faust, 1829) and Moore (Irlande, 1830). After that he wrote only a few songs, including the six that make up his finest achievement in the genre, Les nuits d’été.

The poet and critic Théophile Gautier (1811–72) was a friend and colleague of Berlioz; it was he who dubbed the author Victor Hugo, the painter Eugène Delacroix, and Berlioz, a ‘Trinity of French Romanticism’. Gautier’s prolific output of lyrical poetry was not as widely adopted by composers as one might expect, although some of the poems, including three of those set by Berlioz, attracted settings from Bizet, Fauré, and Duparc. Berlioz selected them from lyrics published in 1838 with a longer poem, La comédie de la mort. Berlioz altered some of Gautier’s titles and called the whole set ‘Summer Nights’, although the most seasonally specific, No 1 (‘Villanelle’), is clearly a spring song. Poet and composer shared an interest in death and sexual longing, but also a gently ironic sense of humour, most in evidence in the first and last songs of Les nuits d’été; the central four are slow, and three of them are dark in tone, with two entitled by Gautier ‘Lamento’. But Berlioz’s music achieves more than sufficient variation in character and form for this not to be a problem, at least for the listener.

Les nuits d’été was published in 1841, ‘for mezzo-soprano or tenor’, and at this stage with piano accompaniment. In 1843 Berlioz orchestrated ‘Absence’ for the mezzo-soprano Marie Recio, with whom he had become entangled; she later became his second wife. Although she had taken solo roles at the Paris Opéra, it seems likely that her vocal abilities soon declined, for Berlioz complained when she insisted on singing in his concerts.

He might have preferred to hear these songs from Rosine Stoltz, the mezzo-soprano who played the trouser-role of Ascanio in his 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini. But there are few records of any performances of the remaining five songs, which were not orchestrated until 1855–6; for this reason Berlioz’s virtual inauguration of the genre of orchestral song is not always recognized. The orchestral version was published in Germany with separate dedications to singers he met touring there, or in Weimar where Liszt organized Berlioz festivals in the early 1850s. For the orchestral version, Berlioz transposed the second and third songs to lower keys, but this makes little difference to the integrity of Les nuits d’été as a cycle. Although the poetic voices are evidently male, Berlioz clearly allowed for performance by women, even though the fifth song is designated for tenor. Occasionally three or four singers are used, but performance by a single voice is fully compatible with the composer’s probable intentions and lends unity to the cycle.

No 1: ‘Villanelle’. Gautier called the poem ‘Villanelle rhythmique’, offering Berlioz a hint he had no difficulty in taking. His first draft was strophic, the music identical for the three poetic stanzas, but he changed his mind and introduced delicate melodic changes for the voice, and subtly expressive string counterpoints into the accompaniment; the bassoon solo at the end of each stanza is a step higher each time. These variations add to the sense of the natural variety and freshness of spring.

No 2: ‘Le spectre de la rose’. The speaker, the rose, addresses the sleeping girl who wore it at last night’s ball. It is dead, but has ascended to paradise; such a death would be envied by a king. The languid compound metre, the richly textured accompaniment, and the expansive modulations to remote harmonic areas, recall the orchestral ‘love scene’ in Berlioz’s recently premiered Roméo et Juliette. The three stanzas begin in the same way, but diverge harmonically, the last climaxing in a glowing dominant key – withheld until this point as it is in the symphonic love scene.

No 3: ‘Sur les lagunes’, originally entitled ‘Lamento’. Fauré’s later setting evokes the Venetian lagoons, but Berlioz focuses on the poet’s grief, placing the sighing figure that opens the song in a remarkable variety of harmonic contexts to evoke past happiness and present misery. The climactic exclamation ‘Ah, to go to sea without love’ is echoed in a deeper register by the woodwinds, and the song ends by reverting to its opening sigh, the harmony daringly unresolved.

No 4: ‘Absence’ is the only poem that Berlioz did not set in its entirety. Instead he selected the first three of its seven stanzas and repeated the first as a refrain after the second and third. This rondo-like pattern (with only slight additional orchestral touches for the third statement) was probably chosen because Berlioz was using music conceived for an earlier abandoned project, the ‘antique intermezzo’ Érigone, embarked on a couple of years earlier. Verses survive for a solo for Érigone (‘Reviens, reviens, sublime Orphée’) that correspond closely in sentiment and exactly in metre to Gautier’s poem; ‘Absence’ is the deeply affecting result.

No 5: ‘Au cimetière’, originally entitled ‘Lamento’. Duparc’s melancholy setting uses only half the poem; Berlioz grouped the six stanzas in pairs for a three-part musical form. The middle section, from ‘On dirait que l’âme éveillée’, reduces the texture almost to nothing, but it flowers as the poet invokes the ‘wings of song’ (‘les ailes de la musique’); the opening returns at ‘Les belles de nuit’. This is the strangest of the laments, melodically taut and harmonically insecure, as if searching for something in the dark graveyard. The mournful calling of doves echoes through the final bars, the clarinet grating softly against the dying flute line and the string harmony.

No 6: ‘L’Île inconnue’, which Gautier called ‘Barcarolle’, ends the cycle on a lighter note: these lovers are together, though not, perhaps, for eternity, since the land where love lasts forever does not exist. Berlioz illustrates the poet’s invitation with many deft orchestral touches, but melodic similarities with ‘Sur les lagunes’ may point ironically to a less contented future. The cycle ends quietly and almost on a musical question-mark, as Berlioz takes a minor liberty with the poem by repeating the lover’s ‘Where do you want to go?’.

Berlioz called his Roméo et Juliette (1839) a ‘dramatic symphony’. Besides a large orchestra, it requires three soloists, small choral groups, and a full chorus for the finale, and is ninety minutes long. Although he also called it a ‘choral symphony’, much of it is purely orchestral, including the energetic ball scene, the fantastical scherzo (‘Queen Mab’), and the heart of the work, the ‘Love Scene’. So it is not surprising that Berlioz himself initiated the practice of extracting individual movements, rather than insisting on performing the whole work or nothing.

Berlioz justified his preference for instrumental representation of Shakespeare’s balcony scene by reminding us that the work is a symphony, not an opera. ‘The greatest composers have produced thousands of vocal duets; it seemed prudent as well as original to do it some other way.’ The sublime quality of this love makes musical depiction perilous; the composer needs freedom of invention without the limitation of sung words and, Berlioz concludes, in such circumstances ‘instrumental music is richer, more varied, less restricted, and thanks to its very vagueness, incomparably more powerful.’ Elsewhere Berlioz wrote with some distaste of an Italian opera in which Romeo was sung by a woman, but his views on tenors, the obvious voice type for a Romeo, had been coloured by the inadequate performance of the title-role in his opera Benvenuto Cellini.

That opera’s failure in 1838 seems an obvious cause for Berlioz’s decision to resort to symphonic treatment, because rather than depending on the resources of the theatre, he could arrange performances himself. But there is evidence that he thought of a Roméo symphony many years earlier, in 1827, when a troupe of actors came to Paris and performed Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in English. Berlioz instantly fell in love with Harriet Smithson, who played Ophelia and Juliet. By 1839, when he composed his own Roméo et Juliette, they were married, and dependent on Berlioz’s journalism for a living. The symphony might never have been composed but for a generous gift from Paganini which allowed Berlioz enough peace of mind and financial flexibility to tackle it and mount three performances. It was one of his greatest artistic triumphs but not very profitable (‘large-scale music is ruining me’).

The ‘Love Scene’ comes third, after a prologue and the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love. Berlioz offered no detailed programme, but headed the movement ‘Serene night: Capulet’s garden, silent and deserted’. In a short choral section, normally omitted in performances of the scene on its own, young (male) revellers going home sing the praises of Veronese women. The supremely beautiful orchestral ‘adagio’ is sub-headed ‘Juliet on her balcony and Romeo in the shadow’. The prologue tells us a little more: Juliet confides her love to the night, Romeo reveals himself, and the flame of their love blazes forth. The ‘adagio’ begins as a dialogue. Murmuring strings suggest nocturnal rustling; a line for clarinet and cor anglais is added, hesitant at first; then a yearning phrase (cellos and horns) emerges in the tenor register an operatic Romeo would have used, with a cadence that recurs throughout the movement. Juliet’s soliloquy resumes Juliet’s response is an agitated variation of her melody (allegro), soothed by Romeo in a cello recitative.

After this Berlioz may have followed Shakespeare’s scene as he composed, but he revised the movement thoroughly, for musical reasons, and its original form is lost. We can hear the rest as expressing the essence of the lovers’ feelings, rather than the practical matters they also discuss (such as how to meet again and get married). The ‘adagio’ resumes with a long-breathed melody on flute and cor anglais, at first a little sombre, anxious, but succeeded by a new phrase (violins) that culminates in Romeo’s cadence. The remainder of the movement consists of departures from and returns to this phrase, exploring a rich variety of tonal areas, instrumental colours, and, surely, the lovers’ feelings. When the main theme is transferred to the clarinets there are abrupt interruptions from the violins. This could represent a surge of eroticism, but some have suggested that it is Juliet’s nurse calling from within: ‘Madam!’; Juliet responds ‘I come anon …’. She goes inside and re-emerges: ‘Hist, Romeo, hist! … I have forgot why I did call thee back’. Perhaps some of this is reflected in a complete bar of silence, followed by the most passionate, daring, change of key, and a final upsurge of the main melody and its cadence. But the lovers must part, so Berlioz breaks his musical ideas into wistful fragments and a lingering close mainly from clarinets and cellos.

Roméo et Juliette is a tragedy, no less poignant when represented by the delicacy and passion that inform Berlioz’s music. Perhaps this is why he modified Shakespeare’s final scene by emerging from the ‘vagueness’ of instrumental sounds into a frankly operatic treatment of the reconciliation of the warring families, brought about not by the worldly power of the prince of Verona (as in Shakespeare), but by the eloquence of Friar Lawrence and the power of the Catholic Church. Berlioz matched that splendid finale in his other choral and dramatic works; but within his output, indeed within the whole of 19th-century music, his orchestral ‘Love Scene’ stands alone.

That Cléopâtre should be performed nearly two centuries after its composition (or indeed that it should be performed at all) would have surprised Berlioz. It was composed with considerable fervour, even feverishness, but then in effect withdrawn; several musical ideas appear in later works that Berlioz performed and published. Berlioz’s recycling of musical ideas has sometimes been perceived as a problem, but if we accept similar procedures in Handel, Bach, and Mozart, there is no need to apologise on his behalf, especially when he made no attempt to perform or even keep a copy of the earlier work, as is the case here.

Berlioz entered five times for the Prix de Rome awarded by the French Institute, for which the reward was a period in the eternal city and financial support for five years. At the third attempt, in 1828, he was awarded second prize, and recent precedent meant that he could reasonably expect to win in 1829. So confident, indeed, was he, that he wrote too well for his own good. The final stage of the competition required candidates to be locked away, to produce a dramatic cantata on a text prepared for the occasion. In 1829 the author was one Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin (1778–1862); so by 1829, aged over 50, and expressing himself in fustian verse, he may have seemed to the candidates to live up to his name (Vieillard: old man). Berlioz, however, set to work with the intention of creating a piece of truly dramatic music, and to modern ears he succeeded. Unfortunately the Institute’s jury did not possess such ears.

The judgement was based on a performance with piano accompaniment, hardly ideal for a composer with Berlioz’s colourful orchestral imagination. Stage one was a jury of musicians; in 1828 they had not wanted to give Berlioz even the second prize for his fine cantata Herminie. But the second stage was a jury representing all the arts, and though Berlioz was later to mock this system, it was this larger jury of poets, painters, sculptors and engravers that insisted on awarding him second prize in 1828. In 1829 the musicians were no less alarmed by Berlioz’s music, and this time the larger jury did not overrule their verdict. A contributory factor was the performance. In 1828 Berlioz had succeeded in engaging a singer from the Paris Opéra, Louise-Zelmé Dabadie. She agreed to sing again in 1829, and did so before the music jury. But the Opéra’s rehearsal schedule unexpectedly prevented her from singing before the larger jury, and instead she sent her sister, Clara Leroux, then a student, lacking experience, and with little time to learn music which, it must be said, she could be excused for finding difficult. One cannot help wondering what might have happened if Mme Dabadie had delivered a performance of Cléopâtre of comparable dramatic splendour to those we hear today. Berlioz would have gone to Rome later in 1829, and quite possibly he would never have embarked on his next big project, none other than the Symphonie fantastique. Mercifully for the reputation of the Institute, Berlioz finally won the prize in 1830. The Institute kept copies of Herminie and Cléopâtre, but Berlioz took away his 1830 cantata, Sardanapale, and only a fragment survives.

Cléopâtre follows a pattern traditional in Prix de Rome cantatas based on the operatic pairing of recitative and aria. In Herminie there were three arias, but in Cléopâtre only two, which did not prevent Berlioz taking liberties with the text. The first recitative outlines the protagonist’s situation; the aria looks back to happier times. The second recitative points ahead to the protagonist’s next action, and the final aria should have brought the cantata to a brilliant conclusion, displaying the virtuosity of the singer with passage-work and a well-placed high note near the end. That at least was the understanding of the other candidates; Berlioz had other ideas. The Queen of Egypt has lost her lover Mark Anthony and been unable to seduce the conquering Octavius Caesar (later the Emperor Augustus); she is haunted by a sense of her own unworthiness in the eyes of her ancestors, and resolves on suicide. Berlioz’s artistic integrity, as well as over-confidence (everyone assumed he would win the first prize), demanded that he take this tragedy seriously; and the result is a composition fully worthy of a budding master of dramatic music.

The instrumental introduction grabs our attention with disjointed gestures from the strings and dark-hued wind chords, building to a brief climax cut off for a plaintive wail from an oboe. The main motive of the introduction punctuates the first recitative, which moves rapidly through the spectrum of tonalities; and when she describes herself as the daughter of all the Ptolemies, the Queen ascends majestically to a high note, the final bars of the recitative covering a range of two octaves. In the intense introduction to the first aria, an aspiring violin figure melts into a beautiful melodic sequence suggestive of the nostalgia Cleopatra feels for her days 15 of glory and of love; this also figures in the aria. Berlioz later used it in Benvenuto Cellini (it is most familiar today from the overture Le carnaval Romain). But the aria’s opening phrase breaches decorum, plunging from a clear E flat major to the unrelated D flat of ‘tourment de ma mémoire’. The aria is in ternary form, the middle section recalling her humiliation in and after the battle of Actium, and the reprise of the first section rising to an expanded and magnificent climax.

At least Berlioz had so far followed the expected form, however bold the content. But now he curtailed the second recitative by taking some of its text (‘Grands Pharaons …’) as a ‘Méditation’, better described, perhaps, as an invocation. He also, cheekily, placed a quotation from Shakespeare (in English) at its head: ‘How if when I am laid into the tomb …’: words of Juliet when she contemplates waking from a death-like sleep in the family vault. There is an evident parallel with Cleopatra’s situation, and it has been suggested that Berlioz had already written this music, perhaps with a setting of Romeo and Juliet in mind. It was probably this superb passage, with its groping harmonies and throbbing rhythm, that most upset the musician-jurors. Berlioz used it almost unchanged in Lélio, his sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, associating it there with the ghost’s speech in Hamlet.

The following allegro comes closer to what the judges expected, especially when its agitated opening gives way to gentler thoughts at ‘Du destin qui m’accable’ – this to a melody Berlioz recycled the following year in his orchestral fantasy on The Tempest. The mood of agitation returns as Cleopatra contemplates the ruin of her empire, and Berlioz might have pulled it together musically, if not dramatically, with the obligatory top note. Instead, as a realist and fanatical admirer of Shakespeare, he shatters classical decorum once and for all; growling double basses just about hold together disjointed gasps from Cleopatra and serpent-bites represented by the violins. Like the protagonist, the music seems to die in agony, a gesture of tragic nihilism surely suggested more by Shakespeare than by Vieillard.

James Rushton © 2013

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